back to article UK urged to choo-choo-choose hydrogen-powered trains in pursuit of carbon-neutral economic growth

A railway pressure group is calling on the UK government to throw its weight behind a new fleet of hydrogen-powered trains to help modernise existing rolling stock and get the nation's transport policy back on track. The Railway Industry Association (RIA) – which can trace its roots back more than 140 years to when its members …

  1. BebopWeBop

    Probably a good idea, but as the UK can't even electrify its lines competently, unlikely to happen.

    1. Peter2 Silver badge

      Oh, we can electrify lines alright. The issue as the article says is the economic feasibility of doing so.

      Main lines are electrified, and the branch lines used by a couple of trains a day get a diesel train instead because it's cheaper, and it's apparently it's cheaper to design trains just for those lines than electrify all of them.

      1. Roger Kynaston Silver badge

        No all electric

        If you head to the west country. You are electric as far as Newbury and then on dead shrimp juice. If you go via Bristol you get as far as Chippenham before the electric cables run out.

        1. WonkoTheSane

          Re: No all electric

          On N Wales coast line to Holyhead for the ferry to Ireland, the wires end at Crewe.

          1. Lon24

            Re: No all electric

            A substantial cost of electrification is raising bridges, enlarging tunnels and other infrastucture from our old and rather small loading guages to accommodate elevated cateneries. Uneconomic on low usage routes.

            One solution is to use the third rail (as on the old Southern Railway routes) through the restricted sections. It is possible to mix'n'match as Eurostar did to use catenery for most of the journey and switch to third rail without stopping to limp through third rail sections.

            Or if third rail is unacceptable (why?) then it should be feasible for batteries to carry them through the difficult bridge/tunnel sections - recharging on the rest of the journey or at the terminus as, I believe, some continetal trolley buses are doing or planning to do.

            Sharing traction it must be better than having hybrid electric/diesel trains. And Elon is almost promising than batteries will be cheap as chips ... sometime.

            1. S4qFBxkFFg

              Re: No all electric

              "Or if third rail is unacceptable (why?)"

              There are probably other reasons, but if the local "kids just being kids" decide to discard a shopping trolley onto the track, the consequences stand to be more expensive; in both cases, the line has to be closed and a man in an orange waistcoat sent to remove the item, but if the offending trolley has become part of a high voltage electricity circuit shorted to ground (I assume 1st and 2nd rails are kept at 0V?), some other stuff probably has to happen beforehand.

              1. Dave559 Silver badge

                Re: No all electric

                There is a limit to the amount of power that you can get out of third rail, compared to higher voltage overhead line electrification. I understand that it's just generally not regarded as having enough oomph for trains running at 100 mi/h or more. That's one of the reasons that eurostar was indeed rather limited running on third rail track, not just that the lines themselves weren't designed for high speeds. The fact that the electrified rails are dangerous hazards to people trespassing onto the tracks (not least, incidents stop the trains, and someone has to clean up afterwards) is also a reason for discouraging further extension of the third rail networks.

                1. EvilDrSmith Silver badge

                  Re: No all electric

                  I'm reasonably sure that third rail sections in the old Southern Region area have line speeds in excess of 100mph, though the point about 'oomph' (should that be '00 mph'?) may still be correct.

                  However, while third rail may be easier to trespass onto, if someone is on the third rail, it's casualty rescue, if they get zapped by the O/H wires, it's body recovery.

                  Third rail is also mechanically/structurally simpler and less intrusive: just a big hunk of rail on an insulated pot every 4th sleeper or so, plus some chunky connecting cables (when they're not stolen during power isolations).

                  O/H requires gantries (posts and arms, sticking up higher than the train, thus also foundations to keep the standing upright), the cables themselves, the tensioning mechanism, etc

                  1. Dave559 Silver badge

                    Re: No all electric

                    @EvilDrSmith, I've heard from proper train bods that 90 mi/h is just about pushing the limit of what the Southern third rail power supply can cope with. Possibly some trains do reach 100 mi/h in a few places, but for widespread use at those speeds, or (hypothetically) faster, apparently the network power supply infrastructure into the third rails themselves would need to be beefed up substantially (or it would "brown out" essentially).

                    You can zip around OpenRailwayMap (switch map style to "Max speeds"), if you want to see what the actual line speeds are.

                  2. Stoneshop

                    Re: No all electric

                    The main problem with third rail systems is the low supply voltage, 750V DC, which means that even for light rolling stock with modest power requirements, some 2500kW for a modern EMU like the Class 460, you're already well into several thousand amps. Upping the top speed from 100mph to 120mph would require close to 50% more traction power, requiring even fatter supply lines, rectifiers and safety switch gear, and that's not counting the contact problems (and their energy losses) that grow with the speed. 25kV AC needs just 100A through the overhead lines and the pantograph for the same power delivered, so you can seen there's more headroom to run more powerful units faster and with greater acceleration.

                    The Dutch railroad network is similarly hampered at 1500V DC (now 1800V DC). The high-speed Amsterdam-Brussel-Paris line is therefore powered at 25kV AC from where it branches off the existing line south of Schiphol. The other 25kV line is the Betuweroute, a freight-only line from the Maasvlakte cargo terminals to the German border. That one is because of the power required to run a fair length of freight train without melting the overhead system

                  3. MJI Silver badge

                    Re: No all electric

                    Rumours of 120mph in trials on third rail by a 4 car set

                2. MJI Silver badge

                  Re: No all electric

                  3rd rail limit is roughly 4000bhp per train

                  Practical limit WAS 3700bhp before motors had to be locked out. (On Bournemouth line)

                  That would be two 1600bhp power cars on one set, with an extra 500bhp motorised van.

              2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                Re: No all electric

                Is 3rd rail a huge problem in London for trolleys on the line shorting them out? Not all of the underground is underground and it's all 3rd rail AFAIK.

                1. MJI Silver badge

                  Re: No all electric

                  LU is actually 4 rail, a centre negative but yes it is not a big problem.

                  But they run a lower voltage than the Southern region, however no bonkers EMUs with lots of power.

            2. rg287

              Re: No all electric

              Or if third rail is unacceptable (why?)

              Kids being kids; can't use it over level crossings; risk to rail workers, risk of earthing due to flooding or other ground-level damage; risk to passengers if the train breaks down or derails and they have to be evacuated along the track (it should be dead by then, but passengers won't be waiting to check if they're trying to escape a train that has smoke in the carriages or suffered an obvious "fault").

              Bi-mode trainsets which jump to battery for short segments (bridges/tunnels) are probably preferable - or hydrogen sets as envisaged here for operating beyond the electrified network.

              1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                Re: No all electric

                "can't use it over level crossings"

                Is a train ever moving so slowly it can't coast over the length of a crossing? The momentum of a train, even where the station is only 50 yds from the crossing should easily be enough to carry it over the crossing. And that;s assuming there only one power car at the front.

                1. MJI Silver badge

                  Re: No all electric

                  Level Crossings

                  No problem as pickup shoes at both ends

            3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

              Re: No all electric

              Could the catenary be lowered and raised quickly enough for momentum to carry the train past a bridge? That would mean that a 3rd rail would only be required in tunnels where the risk would be less?

              1. Roland6 Silver badge

                Re: No all electric

                >Could the catenary be lowered and raised quickly enough for momentum to carry the train past a bridge?

                Do the math for a train running at over 100mph plus add in the certainty that the technology will fail...

                Actually, a big issue isn't so much the pantograph, but allowing sufficient air gap to minimise earth bridging etc. of the overhead cable.

            4. anothercynic Silver badge

              Re: No all electric

              Third rail is not as good for running powerful juice through. But you are correct in pointing out that batteries are an option (and they are being investigated), and there are other things they've looked at (such as effectively making some sections 'dead' where the track can't be lowered or the bridge/infrastructure cannot be raised). The Severn tunnel is one of those where the engineers scratched their heads for a while, and just outside Didcot, a grade II listed bridge (one of the few built by the great Brunel 'imself) couldn't be dismantled and rebuilt because the villagers wouldn't have it (and it would've meant a massive detour and mess on a set of roads that are already messy during normal times as it is).

              This should be a lesson to those who bleat on about how HS2 is a waste of time and money... Understand that most of the 'main' routes (the Great Western to Brizzol and beyond, the Great Eastern/ECML up through Stevenage and Grantham to Inverness, the West Coast Main Line via Milton Keynes and Birmingham to Glasgow), all were built either in or before the Victorian age, and they are creaking at the seams. The WCML renovation in the late 90's to 2000s cost so much that Railtrack (remember them??) went bust and was rebirthed as Network Rail. HS2 is adding capacity where it's needed, up to Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield (which is also connected to London via the Midland line through Nottingham and Bedford), and allowing freight trains to actually *also* use the WCML which they're practically unable to because Virgin (now Avanti) ran 110 mph trains on a clock schedule up to Birmingham and beyond.

              So yes, chronic underinvestment for the better part of two centuries, over-optimistic projections (on the Great Western when they planned the electrification project) and not knowing what's in the ground (this is a problem on *all* lines, including Scotland where there've been multiple derailments), they've all come home to roost. It cost Network Rail £2.8 billion to do the lines to Cardiff. The WCML cost £9 billion (that was in 2009, see how the cost spirals?). You can only imagine how much it would cost to electrify the entire country. It's not some cash down the back of Boris Johnson's (posh John Lewis) sofa kind of money. It requires sustained investment for decades, like the French have done, the Japanese have done, the Germans have done, and the Chinese are doing now.

          2. Dave559 Silver badge

            Re: No all electric

            "On N Wales coast line to Holyhead for the ferry to Ireland, the wires end at Crewe."

            I'm sure that at some point EU Regional Development Funds and Trans-European Network funds, helped by the expanded powers of the Senedd, and the increasing focus on improving more sustainable modes of transport, would help to see this route get electrified as part of a key route to Ireland. (The A55 road certainly benefited from such.)

            Ah, oops.

            1. EnviableOne

              Re: No all electric

              that all got spent on the south coast, wales has a north-south divide too

        2. anothercynic Silver badge

          Re: No all electric

          That's not entirely true. If you go via Bristol Temple Meads, then yes, you'll have to diesel through Bath (because it was either ruin what made Bath a UN heritage site, or use diesel), but as of the beginning of the month, via Bristol Parkway, you're electric all the way to Cardiff.


      2. rg287

        Main lines are electrified, and the branch lines used by a couple of trains a day get a diesel train instead because it's cheaper, and it's apparently it's cheaper to design trains just for those lines than electrify all of them.

        The MML would like a word.

        Indeed, "Electric Spine" has been largely cancelled, which aimed for... a rolling electrification of those core lines not yet upgraded.

        Which is why we have - admittedly very clever - trainsets like the Class 802s which can transition from running in diesel-electric mode to using overhead lines (or vice-versa) at line speed when they travel from/to the provinces (e.g. anywhere west of Cardiff) and rejoin/leave the electrified network.

      3. Roland6 Silver badge

        >Oh, we can electrify lines alright. The issue as the article says is the economic feasibility of doing so.

        Well exhibit number 1: Midland mainline electrification:

        There was a business case that showed that the electrification project would both be completed and pay for itself in under 10 years due in a large part to savings associated with the maintenance and operation of ageing diesel trains.

        The UK government decided that this didn't provide a satisfactory return on investment and instead decided to rush ahead with HS2.

        Subsequently, they decided the Midland mainline would benefit from the electrification of the London end of the line (ie. commuter services) and having to operate diesel/electric trains.

        Last year Network Rail finally said they want to electrify the northern half of the line by 2050.

        So whilst a few decades back we were able to electrify the West Coast Mainline in its entirety, I suggest that is no longer the case.

        Likewise, with the government (and major political parties) backing HS2, the likelihood of a rail project going ahead is inversely proportional to the economic feasibility and viability.

      4. Chris Fox

        Other reasons some lines have not been electrified

        "Oh, we can electrify lines alright. The issue as the article says is the economic feasibility of doing so."

        Another factor in play here is that the Coalition and Tory governments cancelled and curtailed economically viable*, approved and "shovel ready" electrification projects, because ... austerity..., while supporting costly and economically dubious white-elephant vanity projects, like HS2. And where they cancelled or truncated previously agreed electrification projects they instead invested in inefficient and costly dual mode-traction units on long-term over-priced PFI leases with terms that require payment based on availability, not use, and whose acquisition was at odds with policy commitments related to carbon emissions.

        * Even on the UK Gov's rather narrow definition of what counts as economical viability in the railway sector.

    2. Dave559 Silver badge


      "Probably a good idea, but as the UK can't even electrify its lines competently, unlikely to happen."

      Scotland has been carrying out electrification works almost continuously since the Airdrie - Bathgate line reconstruction started in 2008, with all routes between Edinburgh and Glasgow now electric, and work ongoing to electrify the few remaining non-electric commuter routes around Glasgow (which the regional authorities have been fairly steadily wiring up ever since the 1960s). Medium/longer term plans exist to electrify the other InterCity routes.

      England has been electrifying the Great Western Main Line and extending electrification at least some way further along the Midland Main Line. Hopefully the "Northern Powerhouse" railway upgrading plans will come to fruition. HS2 will, obviously, be electric.

      Wales is (hopefully) planning to electrify commuter lines around Cardiff. Northern Ireland's railway network is currently sadly rather minimal, but that's still 3 out of 4 making progress.

      So, not perfect, but it is definitely very unfair to say that the UK railway network hasn't been making good progress on electrification in recent years. Even in the anti-rail days of Thatcherism, the East Coast Main Line electrification managed to happen, albeit on a very tight budget and one that resulted in some shortsighted economies, such as overhead line masts being spaced further apart than desirable, which is why, to this day, it still suffers breakdowns more than it should in high winds.

    3. Roland6 Silver badge

      >Probably a good idea

      Forgetting the lessons of the APT which used gas turbines...

  2. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge


    Why don't they just finish electrifying the tracks?

    1. Swiss Anton

      Re: Huh

      The problem is that it is very expensive to retrofit the required electrical infrastructure, and on some lines, like the one through to Aberystwyth, the volume of traffic doesn't come close to justifying that that investment.

      1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

        Re: Huh

        It can also require major engineering work where tunnels and bridges don't have the clearance for catenaries. Dual-mode trains that can switch between H₂ & overhead are a more versatile option for tracks with less frequent trains.

        1. Martin an gof Silver badge

          Re: Huh

          Or, as is happening around here, overhead and battery. In fact the trains they are buying for the Rhymney line are tri-mode - overhead, battery and Diesel - which gives them flexibility to go more-or-less anywhere on the network.


          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Huh

            An interesting stop gap measure, and in the UK likely to be in service for 50 years, but how much dead weight is the diesel engine when not in use?

            1. Martin an gof Silver badge

              Re: Huh

              Possibly not 50 years, but they're not really a stop-gap measure, they're what seems to me to be a good compromise. Electrification of the Valley lines is difficult with lots of low bridges and the occasional tunnel which would need a lot of modification. Apparently, electrification of the short stretch between Cardiff Queen Street and Cardiff Central is very difficult, too, something to do with the way the line flies over the main line, as you can just about see in this Google Maps image (the Globe View shows it more clearly, but is old imagery, before the electrification of the main line).

              All Rhymney trains and Coryton trains must travel between Queen Street and Central, and most Merthyr/Rhondda trains travel that way too (they do have an alternative route, but it only takes something like one in four of the trains).

              There is also the issue that - so I'm told - although TfW now owns most of the track in Wales, Network Rail still owns the main line (which may complicate the Queen Street thing) and also, apparently, the branch to Penarth, which is therefore not part of the electrification scheme. Some Rhymney trains carry on as far as Penarth.

              While the Network Rail thing is potentially solvable fairly easily, the low-bridges thing is much more difficult and significantly more costly, so Bi-mode (electric/battery for the Merthyr/Rhondda tram-trains) or Tri-mode (Rhymney line) trains are a good value alternative.

              Not entirely sure about the weight. The trains are Stadler FLIRT units, which seem to have a baseline unit with overhead power, and for the other functions they squeeze a short power unit in between two of the carriages. TfW has an animated look here which shows that this power unit has a narrow corridor through it. The Stadler website doesn't go into much detail. The power unit isn't shown under the FLIRT information, but can be seen in the picture of the WINK. Yup, they have trains called SMILE, FLIRT, KISS, WINK, TANGO...


      2. Lon24

        Re: Huh

        Ah - the Aberystwyth line. I used to use that every week. It's low volume because it's single line and so they don't or can't run trains more than every 2 hours in each direction with just one passing point on a long stretch. Plus Arriva Wales would run only two 'hole in floor toilet' carriages into Aber. Hence both were regulary rammed. Friday with students trying to flee the town was particulary unpleasant.

        Hence most people who have a choice use other ways (car, bus - even bicycle). A classic case of forcing people into less sustainable methods of transport when it could carry a lot more with modest investment. Strange how foreigners manage to electrify their branch lines. Obviously they have no clue how to run a Great British Railway ;-)

        1. Martin an gof Silver badge

          Re: Huh

          Transport for Wales is improving things. They've upgraded several facilities along the route and have re-opened "Bow Street" station in Aberystwyth. There is now (or should be, Covid timetables aside) a completely regular one train per hour between Aber and Shrewsbury, with connecting services or train splits heading up to Pwllheli.

          Since 2010 or so it has been operating under ERTMS signalling which apparently gives a bit more flexibility, and an upgrade has recently been announced to something newer. I believe the trains in use are Class 158 which have had fairly recent upgrades to comply with PRM requirements and fit retention tanks to the toilets.


          1. Lon24

            Re: Huh

            I presume the horror that was Arriva forced the Welsh government to step in. Good they have made it hourly, have they added carriages?

            1. Martin an gof Silver badge

              Re: Huh

              Assuming you've not been near Wales for a bit, the Welsh Government managed to persuade London to let them take over nearly all rail services in Wales, so back in 2018 when Arriva's tenure was up the "franchise" passed to an arms-length company called Transport for Wales (apparently modelled after Transport for London) and they asked for bids to run the services. Arriva withdrew from the race and the contract eventually went to a joint bid between Keolis and Amey.

              Freed from the need to take orders from London, TfW announced major upgrades right across Wales and although the process has been far from smooth (the problems with the 769 and 230 trains stemmed from Arriva's refusal to do much to upgrade the Class 142/3 Pacers and Class 15x Sprinters, meaning that TfW had very little time to comply with PRM regulations and upgrades such as fitting retention tanks to toilets) it has already reaped some benefits.

              No, I don't think there are any additional carriages on the Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth line, but doubling the frequency does increase capacity considerably. The service is operated by Class 158 with something like 140 seats, as it has been for a considerable time, but these have fairly recently been refurbished. They are due to be replaced within the next two or three years with brand new CAF Civity (Class 197) trains, but there's been some controversy as the two-car sets which look likely to run on the Aberystwyth line have fewer seats (120?) and only one toilet. I suppose they may run as four-car pairs for the services which split.


      3. Korev Silver badge

        Re: Huh

        The problem is that it is very expensive to retrofit the required electrical infrastructure, and on some lines, like the one through to Aberystwyth, the volume of traffic doesn't come close to justifying that that investment.

        To be fair they've only just accepted those horseless carriage things there, so this electrickery stuff might be a step too far...

    2. Potemkine! Silver badge

      Re: Huh

      - Price

      - Technical feasibility

      - Electricity loss because of Joule effect.

      Hydrogen-powered trains may in the end require a much lighter infrastructure.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Huh

        >Hydrogen-powered trains may in the end require a much lighter infrastructure.

        More than 99% of hydrogen is produced from methane and steam. The RIA spokesman dropped "green hydrogen" in there but it is as rare as unicorn shit, and will continue to be without heavy investment and subsidies because it is very expensive.

        Around 99% of hydrogen is produced cheaply from a high temperature endothermic reaction between methane and steam (invariably heated with fossil fuels):

        CH4 + H2O → CO + 3 H2

        and then a bit more hydrogen is squeezed out using an exothermic

        CO + H2O → CO2 + H2

        This whole process accounts for 6% of global natural gas use, and 2% of coal consumption, pumping out 830 million tonnes of annual CO2 emissions.

        1. Potemkine! Silver badge
          1. Greybearded old scrote

            Re: Huh

            You can't claim to be green until things have changed, can you?

            1. Adair Silver badge

              Re: Huh

              Nope, 'Green' is an absolute - like hitting the buffers at the end of the track.

              But you can be 'getting greener', as you head down the track towards those green buffers. Asymptotedly you may never actually hit the buffers, so never become completely 'Green', but you can still be 'greener' than you were yesterday.

              So, the question is: Are you moving in the 'Green' direction?

        2. Nick Ryan Silver badge

          Re: Huh

          There are also a few not entirely great things about the use of hydrogen as a fuel:

          • It has a very low energy density, requiring it to be kept at high pressure to be able to store even a moderate amount
          • Hydrogen is very good at leaking due to the very small atomic size.
          • Hydrogen is rather prone to combustion
          • Hydrogen is typically combined with oxygen to generate power and as this tends not to be pure oxygen therefore other chemical reactions may happen (varying depending on the setup, but they will happen). For example nitrogen makes up ~78% of air therefore expect nitrogen dioxide and ammonia to be produced but also some hydrocarbons will be produced too and other than a small amount of toxicity (generally very low volume so not such an issue in an open environment), they can unfortunately somewhat shorten the life of a typical hydrogen fuel cell).
          • Hydrogen fuel cells are between 40-60% efficient when generating electricity with heat as a substantial by product and this needs to be dissipated or used (great if you want to warm things up).

          None of these are impossible to reduce the impact of, but they all add up to a fuel source that is somewhat more involved than the simplistic "hydrogen is great as it just produces water as a by-product" that many people think it is.

          1. EnviableOne

            Re: Huh

            still better than the average Diesel engine or grid transmission loss.

            H2 is basically a more efficient nigh on a drop-in replacement for diesel.

            The improvements needed are just coming on stream, there are materials now that are cheap and readily made that prevent leakage.

            Green hydrogen is being revolutionised by Graphene-based Membrane PEM fuel cells and electrolysers, and with the increase in offshore wind, it is becoming easier, cheaper and more efficient to store electricity as H2 and ship it to shore rather than build undersea cables.

            Hydrogen as a replacement for Fossil fuels is a lot more environmentally friendly than Li-ion batteries, when you take into account you can re-use (with some modification,) most of the distribution infrastructure, and you don't need to collect the rare earth metals....

      2. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

        Re: Huh

        OK, for those that replied - thanks. Fair enough it's going to be pricey to electrify the whole network, and I get that for some lines with long runs and limited traffic it's not economical.

        But by way of counter-example, the train from London to Penzance - 305 miles - has only the first 53 mlles electrified. And that, apparently, is after the Great Western electrification project has completed. All of which I'm lifting wholesale from p17 of this week's Private Eye, edited by a man that definitely does trains. I'm pretty sure we can do better than that.

        Electricity loss from the national grid was 2.4% last year. You're going to lose a damn site more than that converting to/from Hydrogen. I get that it has its place, and maybe trains are one of those places, but it does feel a bit like another case of "new tech will save us", while ignoring current tech because it's too much work. A position inevitably maintained when that new tech becomes current.

        1. Dave559 Silver badge

          Re: Huh

          Correction: "the train from London to Penzance - 305 miles - has only the first 53 mlles electrified" so far.

          It's an ongoing project that they are still working on. It may not get further than Bristol or Cardiff for the forseeable future, but that will still be a good step forward when that project is completed.

    3. macjules

      Re: Huh

      I hear that HS2 will be powered by unemployed illegal migrants pedalling Boris bikes. Priti Patel has volunteered to be the first overseer with a pledge that she can make them reach 200mph.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Huh

        That's just an internet rumour. Obviously when the Royal Navy ship gets back from its 'I counted them all out, I counted them all back' jolly for journalists in the Black Sea, we will shut off any prospect of illegal migrants reaching the UK, opening up new opportunities for downtrodden British workers to 'join the 'Great British Pedal' once they have finished picking the hops for Nigel's next pint.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Huh

        overemployed illegal migrants pedalling Boris bikes hail HS2 pretty overloads!

    4. MacroRodent

      Re: Huh

      Or run on battery packs. In the case of trains, it would be straightforward, since weight is not as big an issue as in cars, and the battery pack could be quickly swapped with a recharged one at stations, so would not even have to last the entire journey.

      The problem with hydrogen for energy storage is the process of making and using it is not too efficient.

      1. OssianScotland

        Re: Huh

        You could even put the battery pack in a separate unit and place it at the front of the train.

        We could call it... just a wild idea... a locomotive

        Thank you, yes, the one with the (original) GWR badge, please

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Huh

          Now steady on there. Next you might be saying that we could use a water boiler system that produces steam which powers the train.

          1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

            Re: Huh

            You could produce the steam by converting the hydrogen into oxygen dihydride.

      2. druck Silver badge

        Re: Huh

        Swapping train sized batteries is not an option, unless they are in a separate unit, as per OssianScotland's suggestion.

        But if you put a heavy enough battery in the train, it may even be able to cope with leaves on the line, or perhish the thought, the wrong kind of snow.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How could it possibly make more sense to invent new hydrogen powered trains and all the infrastructure that goes with them, than to simply electrify the remaining parts of the network and standardise on electric trains? Madness.

    1. thondwe


      Putting in Overhead/3rd Rail electric is expensive and needs maintenance - for rural areas this isn't that economic or even practical - imagine Scottish Highland lines - trying to fix an overhead electric thing in winter - also unsightly?

      BUT Hydrogen isn't a better solution than battery/rechargeable trains surely?

      (I know - " Don't call me Surely!")

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Rural...

        Haven't we had the solution since our parents were little? Electrify the rails and just have a giant national transformer with a big red speed knob somewhere like crewe

      2. Dr. G. Freeman

        Re: Rural...

        The Scottish Government are talking about electrifying the lines up to Inverness and Aberdeen sometime between 2030 and 2045, (link above is the most optimistic) depending on who you talk to, with the line between them getting done...., well, early 22nd Century is the best guess.

        Seeing as we've got these new 125 Trains going round now, don't expect a change for a while.

        I was hoping by now we'd have those cool Maglev trains or something

    2. 42656e4d203239 Silver badge

      Don't have to invent them - just fuel a normal IC with Hydrogen. Just need slight modifications. The tech already exists for busses and Sprinters were just busses on rails (nearly literally; thank god the Sprinters have, just recently, been consigned to the scrapyard at the end of the sidings... just the Pacers to go now!)

      Not sure how much more efficient using modified internal combustion engine tech would be compared to using a hydrogen fuel cell to generate power. Probably much worse because you are creating the H2 to beginwith then you have a carnot (? is it... its been a long time) cycle engine extracting what energy it can with a small(ish) deltaT

      if you were going to develop new tech, perhaps coming up with a way to use a finely divided platinum catalyst to enable the old exothermic 2H2+02 -> 2H2O to drive pistons or a turbine in some form of IC engine; hmmm turbine looks more promising here being largely ceramic.

      1. Steve 53

        Hydrogen is approximately 30% efficient, electricity in to electricity out, assuming no leakage or transport costs.

        It's not a particularly efficient solution vs, say, lithium-ion batteries being swapped at stations with 80-90% efficiency.

        That said, if we can generate it with offshore wind and avoid the significant costs of big fat electrical cables back from the wind farm, perhaps it can be made to make sense. "Off peak" nuclear, grid wind and soforth will likely eaten up to EV charging..

        The question is how much can be economically produced, and if we need that for houses in urban areas with no room for ASHP/GSHP...

        1. Potemkine! Silver badge

          It's not a particularly efficient solution vs, say, lithium-ion batteries being swapped at stations with 80-90% efficiency.

          Lithium batteries are hard to recycle, they are not efficient when it's getting cold, and lithium extraction isn't really a clean process

        2. Anonymous Coward

          I think we should just put a wind turbine on top of the train.

          The forward motion of the turbine as the train moves will create air flow through it even when there isn't any wind, and so generate electricity to turn the wheels. Or we could drive the wheels directly from it with a big elastic band. Simples.

          1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            You don't need any of this new fangled windmill technology.

            Just a simple sail on the top of the train and the Flying Scotsman clipper express can swoop up to Aberdeen on the winter gales (returning in spring)

            Admittedly tacking is trickier on rails - but I'm more a big picture innovative creative Ted-talk type, I'll let the minions deal with details.

            1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

              Both of you are wrong! Sails on trains? How silly! Gerry Anderson had this right, 50 years ago. We simply have trains with nuclear reactors. Problem solved!

              OK, I admit we may need to spend a bit of R&D money. After all, where else are we going to get the required rocket powered rescue vehicles from, in order to operate these nuclear trains more-or-less safely. But on the upside, the technology also works for airliners, so that's some more greenhouse gasses we can cut.

              Oddly the Thunderbirds themselves appeared to be decidedly carbon un-neutral.

              1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

                Nuclear powered trains are easy - just put the spicy rocks in the firebox instead of coal and use the same Great British steam train technology.

                >Oddly the Thunderbirds themselves appeared to be decidedly carbon un-neutral.

                That's why they had to operate from Tracy island - outside the IPCC control

              2. Adair Silver badge

                Sailing trains is nothing new - in fact North-South routes would work given the prevailing winds are westerlies/easterlies.

                And for proof, try the 'sail train' that used to run - when the wind was right - from Withernsea to Spurn Point, serving the lighthouse community. Good fun was had by all.

                Scale may be an issue.

          2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

            "I think we should just put a wind turbine on top of the train."

            Sorry, they wouldn't fit in the tunnels. Fit them in front or behind instead.

      2. Rob Daglish

        Other way round, the Pacer was the Leyland National on a freight wagon, the sprinter was a more traditional DMU with actual bogies. I don’t know about the 150s and 155s, but the 156/158s look like they’ll be around a while (the 156s will have to be, nothing else is allowed up the Cumbrian coast past Maryport). The remaining 153s look like ending up as bike carriers for scotrail.

        1. MJI Silver badge

          150 5 6 8

          The 4w rail buses were not great

          150 based on Mark 3 shell

          155 Leyland design

          158s are actually rather good units.

          1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            Re: 150 5 6 8

            Serious question.

            Why are trains all built like a Victorian Dreadnought ?

            It starts with big heavy wheels, which then need huge bogies and massive suspension and so bigger engines etc.

            Obviously the miles long ore trains here with 6 locomotives need to be a bit 'chunky', but a local commuter train that is basically a bus body is still on a train chassis that was designed by Brunel.

            1. MJI Silver badge

              Re: 150 5 6 8

              Tube trains are pretty small.

              But main line trains have to reach a safety standard. Have to withstand some pretty high forces in csae of accidents.

              The Pacers to be honest were horrible.

              For quality difficult to beat 1970s and 80s stuff, anything using the Mark 3 jigs and running on BT10s is good.

              This is why Scotland have upgraded to refurbished trains from that period.

              1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

                Re: 150 5 6 8

                >Tube trains are pretty small.

                But even DLR or the automatic elevated metro trains here are still much heavier built than a National Express coach.

                > Have to withstand some pretty high forces in csae of accidents.

                Is that just historical though?

                A car accident is obviously much more common. With modern signalling systems a commuter train really shouldn't run into a 225kmh inter city or a 10,000 ton coal train and wouldn't survive the collision anyway. So do they need to be built like tanks ?

                1. MJI Silver badge

                  Re: 150 5 6 8

                  But accidents happen, look at Morpeth Sleeper crash in 84, highish speed no deaths, a lot due to the safety standards of Mark 3s

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      With an 800 mile range exactly what is 'all the infrastructure"? Trains seem a perfect case for using hydrogen. They aren't particularly constrained by space or weight, and they tend to travel over predictable routes at predictable times. So 'all' is presumably one filling station at the depot. And it's hardly 'invent' to run a combustion engine on hydrogen as we have done that since 1804!

      Or you could use hydrogen fuel cells to allow electric rains to run beyond the limits of economic overhead electrification.

      1. Chris G

        I would have thought fuel cell or hydrogen gas turbines would do the job, both will reach an efficiency of up to 60% and carry their energy source with them.

        Electrification has been a thing since Marples day and still has a long way to go.

      2. stungebag

        Another problem with hydrogen is that, although it's energy density by mass compares well with diesel, even at 250psi it still occupies 14 times the space. You'd have to find somewhere to put bloody big tanks if you want long range.

        1. mevets


          The Toyota MIRAI has about the same wheelbase, seating and storage capacity as a Honda Accord. It is an H2 car with a range over 1000km, measured in real conditions. Does it drag a dirigible or something for fuel storage? Apparently refuel is in the same time range as a fossil vehicle.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          re. You'd have to find somewhere to put bloody big tanks if you want long range.

          I would offer a BRILLIANT solution to the problem: put the bloody big tanks BEHIND the front unit (aka loco), and it SHOULD be able to pull them, all (up to) 800 miles.

          1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            Re: re. You'd have to find somewhere to put bloody big tanks if you want long range.

            >put the bloody big tanks BEHIND the front unit (aka loco),

            Or put them at the back of the train and then they could be jettisoned as they are emptied

        3. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Perhaps in some sort of horizontal cylindrical pressure vessel on the front of the locomotive ?

      3. mevets

        "all that infrastructure"

        Is a pat phrase provided by the fossil fuel industry. The imagery of a full loaded train circling the block looking for a fill-up station that has hydrogen is too much. We will need diesel a little longer.

    4. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      I wondered the same thing

      Apparently everyone involved in UK railway electrification cannot calculate the cost. Electrifying Maidenhead to Cardiff went from £1.6B to £2.8B in a single year. With costs like that, hydrogen might actually save money.

      The good news is that you can add a diesel generator to (some?) electric trains so they can cross routes with no overhead power. If you can make hydrogen based energy storage the same shape as diesel then you may still be able to standardise on electric trains.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: I wondered the same thing

        >With costs like that, hydrogen might actually save money.

        Yes because while massive costs overruns on extending existing technology a few miles are inevitable - projects to install entirely new technology on a national scale always come in well under budget

        1. EnviableOne

          Re: I wondered the same thing

          it's not a new technology: they have been in service in Germany since 2018

          the technology has been around since 1908

          it's far more environmentally friendly to create and re-cycle the energy storage

  4. ITMA Silver badge

    Oh great!

    Not content with many of them (the ones not fitted with air-con) being ovens-on-wheels, they want to make them bombs-on-wheels as well.

    I wonder how many supporting this happen to have "interests" in the very outfits that would be potential contractors in providing the infrastructure for "re-gassing"?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Oh great!

      Hmm.. So close but so far with 'bombs-on-wheels' . Rule 6.b, paragraph 15 of the 'Internet commentary guide' mandates that any comment thread on a hydrogen powered vehicle must reference the Hindenburg explicitly within the first 10 comments.

    2. Giles C Silver badge

      Re: Oh great!

      I’ve never understood the bombs on wheels comment.

      You happily drive a cat with 60-80 litres of explosive liquid in a single walled plastic bowl.

      An electric car with a ruptured battery pack can reignite a day of so later (see Richard hammonds crash in one)

      If the tank developed a leak in normal operation then the hydrogen will disperse into the atmosphere, if something impacts with an ignition source then there could be an explosion.

      Do you not think that the safety precautions would have been tested before going live. I would guess a crash test or two would be needed before anyone approves this….

      1. Stoneshop

        Re: Oh great!

        You happily drive a cat with 60-80 litres of explosive liquid

        The cat, on the other hand, would very likely not be very happy about it.

        1. GreggS

          Re: Oh great!

          "You happily drive a cat with 60-80 litres of explosive liquid in a single walled plastic bowl."

          Would that be a Schrodinger's bowl?

          1. Paul Herber Silver badge

            Re: Oh great!

            Put a tiger in your tank!

            1. Giles C Silver badge

              Re: Oh great!


              On the other hand I do drive a Tiger (kit car)

            2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

              Re: Oh great!

              Surely, put a tank in your tiger?

              1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: happily drive a cat with 60-80 litres of explosive liquid in a single walled plastic bowl.

        Yeah, but only because I don't like cats.



        1. ITMA Silver badge

          Re: happily drive a cat with 60-80 litres of explosive liquid in a single walled plastic bowl.

          My cat wants a word with you in private - down some nice dark lonely lane with some of his feline mates LOL

          Oh. He says make sure you bring your own pre-labelled body bag if you want your remnants returned.

    3. Oh Matron!

      Re: Oh great!

      Yeah, that petrol doesn't burn so well, does it?

    4. Greybearded old scrote

      Re: Oh great!

      Even Zeppelins were really hard to set alight. It took a combination of punching a big hole, to make a hydrogen/air mixture, and incendiary bullets.

      1. WonkoTheSane

        Re: Oh great!

        There was a conspiracy theory a few years back, that said they got the dope mix wrong for the Hindenburg, and accidentally covered it with thermite.

        1. SImon Hobson Bronze badge

          Re: Oh great!

          The outer fabric covering was highly flammable and easily ignitable - though I don't think it was thermite. It would have gone up the same way even if it didn't have any hydrogen on board.

  5. Dabooka

    Must just be me than

    Sounds a reasonable idea, certainly one that justifies a bit more work.

    Not sure why it's always knocked back on the boards here but is always is.

    1. Martin an gof Silver badge

      Re: Must just be me than

      It certainly sounds like a reasonable idea, at first glance anyway, but there are more problems than many people realise. Ok, so in a train unlike a car, the actual storage of the Hydrogen isn't a huge problem, but how do you create that Hydrogen in the first place? Commercial Hydrogen is currently not very "green", and the technologies which promise to sort that out, for example having wind farms generate Hydrogen by electrolysis when there's an overcapacity, are still in their infancy (the above article reckons 1% of Hydrogen is currently produced from renewables).

      There are also many other demands for Hydrogen. It could be a good grid-power backup. It could certainly be used in fuel cells located alongside those aforementioned wind turbines so that they can still provide power even when the wind is not blowing. There are companies desperately trying to make Hydrogen work for vehicles, particularly lorries where batteries still aren't ideal.

      But the key thing no-one here has mentioned is the company involved.

      Porterbrook has a particularly bad recent record with "new from old" trains. For the last several years they have been peddling their "Flex" conversions of old Class 319 EMUs. The Class 319 was built (according to Wikipedia) between 1987 and 1990 so the basic units are already over 30 years old. Porterbrook has been converting them to Diesel operation by slinging engines underneath and flogging them to regional rail companies as upgrades for the (admittedly awful) Pacers (Class 142, 143 etc.)

      Here's the key point - they don't work. Transport for Wales has signed up for nine of the things to enable older Class 15x trains to be released for upgrading (accessibility, retaining toilets). They were late being delivered, and when delivered it was found that they needed modifications in order to fit within the clearances on the lines on which they were meant to work. So late, and so much work required, that TfW brought some ancient Class 37 locos to the party, pulling rakes of mk II coaches, though of course they gave it a very positive spin!

      Clearances have now been sorted, and training has been undertaken and the Class 769 trains are now in use on the Rhymney line but, guess what, they keep failing. So often in fact that TfW has retained a Class 37, parked at the end of the line in Rhymney, as a "Thunderbird" loco. Here's a link to a thread on Railforums with some info and speculation.

      The main problem seems to be that they are underpowered. It's quite a slog uphill from Cardiff to Rhymney, and it looks as if, while the actual traction motors are fine, the Diesel generators which supply them can only deliver about 2/3rds of the power that would be available through an overhead line or a 750V rail. The trains are thus slow out of stations, and have to be pushed very hard to keep anywhere near the timetable.

      So, while Hydrogen might in fact be a good idea, I have no confidence at all that Porterbrook is the right company to bring it to market.


      1. WonkoTheSane

        Re: Must just be me than

        Meanwhile, in 2015, TfW selected Vivarail's Class 230 EMUs (Refurbished District Line trains, to the un-anoraked) for the Conwy Valley & Borderland lines, that we're STILL waiting for!

        1. Martin an gof Silver badge

          Re: Must just be me than

          Yes, another company which can't fit Diesel engines to electric trains properly. I had a little inside information on the one which caught fire in testing - apparently they fitted truck engines as if the trains were trucks and hadn't realised that the suspension works rather differently. The engine mounts failed.

          Couldn't make it up.

          Mind you, apparently one or two are already in service with West Midlands, so the TfW ones shouldn't be too much longer. Then again, if they are as underpowered as the 769s, I wouldn't fancy their chances on the Conway Valley line, though as ex-underground stock they should be perfectly at home in that massive tunnel just before Blaenau Ffestiniog.


  6. MJI Silver badge

    My thoughts

    In the long run electrification is the real sensible answer, but some battery back up to fill in the gaps.

    Something like the far north currently is only practical with Diesel, range would be an issue with any non traditional railway traction.

    That said is someone fitting 3rd rail to the highland lines? I have seen the pictures of the Southern region electrics there.

    Highest priority is fill in the 25kV gaps.

    Then the small number of 750V DC gaps in the south east.

    Then the unelectrifed main lines such as the main line through Cornwall.

    Short branches such as St Ives would be fine with battery packs as long as it can charge off the 25kV overhead.

    Longer runs with light usage are a quandary, maybe use bio Diesel.

    1. MacroRodent

      Re: My thoughts

      > That said is someone fitting 3rd rail to the highland lines? I have seen the pictures of the Southern region electrics there.

      The Swiss solution. I recall decades ago traveling there by Interrail and they seemed to have everything, even narrow-gauge trains electrified. Some had 3rd rails, particularly those going up mountain sides, some a bit flimsy-looking overhead lines.

      1. Red Ted

        Re: My thoughts

        The Swiss even had the slightly mad sounding Electric Steam Locomotives in the 1940s as they were struggling to get coal for their shunting engines, but most of their network was electrified!

    2. EvilDrSmith Silver badge

      Re: My thoughts

      "That said is someone fitting 3rd rail to the highland lines? "

      Intriguing if they are. Third rail has generally been limited to the south because, as I understand it, it doesn't work well in snow (i.e. once settled snow reaches the level of the rail).

      1. stungebag

        Re: My thoughts

        Apart from extending and infilling you can't have new installations with exposed third rails where anyone can walk/sleep/piss on them. Even if you could it would be hopelessly uneconomic to install third rail on the long rural Scottish routes because the low voltage needs substations every few miles.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: My thoughts

          >you can't have new installations with exposed third rails where anyone can walk/sleep/piss on them

          Is that an 'Unelected Eurocrat Rule" or can we wave it away with the sovereignty wand?

          I'm sure Scottish sheep can be trained not to lick the 3rd rail.

    3. Dave559 Silver badge

      Re: My thoughts

      "That said is someone fitting 3rd rail to the highland lines? I have seen the pictures of the Southern region electrics there."

      You are probably getting confused with when ScotRail temporarily hired a few (dual-voltage OHL/third-rail) Class 365s from dahn sarf while waiting for their own new EMUs to come into service.

      ScotRail used them only on routes with overhead lines: the only railway in Scotland with third rail is not part of Network Rail and there are at least three reasons why the trains wouldn't fit/work there [1]!

      [1] wrong track gauge, wrong size, wrong voltage

  7. Stoneshop

    Details of the government's Hydrogen Strategy remain under lock and key.

    Hydrogen is pretty hard to contain. Government documents too tend to leak more than the government wants.

    A Government Hydrogen Strategy is probably diffusing through that lock and key at this very moment.

  8. Red Ted


    They really should finish getting the mainlines (and heavily used suburban lines) electrified first.

    Also the distribution of Hydrogen has its own unique problems, which isn't to say that they can't be overcome, but as a means of energy transfer there are simpler ways.

  9. Oh Matron!

    Won't happen......

    Until there's a Tory donor who has a company based on H2

    1. aqk

      Re: Won't happen......

      Those companies tend to not last very long. Ask anyone who invested in Hydrogen twenty years ago. Or (lol) thirty?

  10. Pascal Monett Silver badge


    The only economically-justified way to create hydrogen is nuclear energy.

    And I'm not even touching storage and distribution.

    If you want to create an ecosystem based on hydrogen transport, you can forget about wind and solar. Nuclear is the only option that can deliver.

    However, nuclear does not have to mean pressure water reactors. Those were only made for the plutonium to make bombs. We don't need to make new bombs, we have enough. Go for Thorium reactors, or Natrium as they are called now. You will also be able to use up the 93% remaining energy in so-called "spent" fuel rods that PWRs cannot use any more.

    Nuclear is the future. Especially in a world where everyone wants a mobile phone, a tablet, a laptop and an EV.

    1. Snowy Silver badge

      Re: Hydrogen

      Do we Need Nuclear Energy to Stop Climate Change?

    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Hydrogen

      Whichever source you use, producing hydrogen is still extremely wasteful when compared with the alternative such as synthetic hydrocarbons. Currently, the only -ve energy step there is the reduction of CO2 to CO. It's chemically pretty easy, safe and provides immediate storage facilities at the source of the energy. If we make enough of the stuff we can start pumping it back into the oil and gas wells…

      But if you really want hydrogen, you can also obtain it from hydrocarbons, again pretty energy intensive but less than electrolysis which is why it's used for industrial production. Large scale electrolysis requires large amounts of clean water, which isn't easily available in many places.

      1. SImon Hobson Bronze badge

        Re: Hydrogen

        Indeed, and not only that, but if you use synthetic hydrocarbons then you could ... oooh, I dunno ... perhaps just use that in the existing rolling stock and supply network ? There is already a load of rolling stock that runs on hydrocarbons, and all the infrastructure to feed it - start mixing in synthetic hydrocarbons and it gets greener without massive capital expenditure on new stock and distribution.

        The same applies to cars - hydrogen is a crap fuel by comparison.

  11. You aint sin me, roit


    That way you don't have the storage problem and get to burn clean hydrogen!

    1. aqk
      Thumb Up

      Re: Diesel-electric-hydrogen

      Let me correct you:

      Drill for oil-->refine-->kerosene-->diesel-->electric-->h2o-->H2+O2->-liquify-->hdrogen-->fuelcell-->electric motor on train.

      Sounds good. I bet some politicians will buy this!

  12. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    Hydrogen is the new gravy train

    Electrolysis is a very energy intensive way of getting hydrogen and then you have to store and transport the stuff. If this sounds like an invitation to subsidy city then it probably is.

  13. StephenTompsett

    Just install a Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor ?

  14. MJI Silver badge

    Bio Diesel still


    Do people actually expect all the 37s to be withdrawn that soon?

    I expect some will hit 80 years of service.

  15. aqk

    Truly! Hydrogen is THE FUTURE!

    Too much common sense being offered in these comments!

    Don't you understand? These decisions are made by POLITICIANS and MBAs, not scientists or engineers!

    And every politician knows that hydrogen is HOT (No pun intended) when it comes to getting the ladies' votes! Ask your wife or girlfriend what they think of hydrogen! ...Oh wait- this is El-Reg. No ladies permitted!

    OK then- advise your politician to visit Vancouver Canada- they've had a successful fleet of hydrogen buses running there ever since the 2010 Olympics! Or perhaps visit Reykjavik- it's closer. .They have a big fleet of hydrogen powered buses also. I read this in the news about seven or eight years ago?

    Me? I'm still waiting for my 2008 Hydrogen powered BMW that I ordered twelve years ago.

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